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WebRTC promises enterprise networking boon

The open standard enabling real-time communications on Web browsers and ability to connect with other WebRTC-enabled mobile devices will remove interoperability issues and cut down software development efforts.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The continued development of the WebRTC standard for real-time communications is expected to herald a new era of enterprise networking, as audio and video conferencing capabilities get embedded in browsers. This will also ultimately allow mobile devices to "speak" to Web browsers via the WebRTC application programming interface (API).

The goal of the project, which started in mid-2011, is to enable applications such as voice calling, video chat andpeer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing without plugins. According to the Webrtc.org site, the standard is a free, open project that enables Web browsers with real-time communications capabilities using simple Javascript APIs.

Commenting on the standard, Geoff Johnson, research vice president at Gartner, said major vendors and those in the open source community working on WebRTC developments will likely solve many of the initial issues required to enable communications from browsers within the next two years. The standard is part of the patchwork of HTML 5 solutions being developed at present, he added.

Looking beyond the next two years, there will be "significant motivation" for a wide range of users and suppliers of communications applications to exploit WebRTC concepts and practices and extend the capabilities into mainstream enterprise networking, Johnson added.

For instance, within contact center operations and communications-enabled business processes, WebRTC can create browser pages for real-time communication as part of an internal workflow, e-commerce, or business process application. Similarly, WebRTC-based applications can create video connections to other devices and media servers that adhere to the standard, he noted.

As such, many technologies using thick- or thin-client applications over limited bandwidth networks will benefit from the ability to derive and provide a rich suite of communications using a Web browser with WebRTC-enabled applications, the analyst said.

"Enterprises should expect WebRTC to eventually become robust enough for use in communications applications in general. They should also prepare for WebRTC to be used in browser-based unified communications and collaboration, contact center and videoconferencing," he stated.

The analyst also highlighted the interest and development support for the standard from major vendors currently. Google, which is one of the standard's strongest proponents, integrated WebRTC into its Chrome development channel in January 2012 and has a video chat plug-in based on the framework for Google Talk.

The Mozilla Foundation released a demo of the WebRTC video calling function running inside its Firefox browser in April this year too, while Microsoft is working on implementing the WebRTC API for its Internet Explorer browser, he added.

Boost for developers
Given the interest and active development support from major vendors, it is likely WebRTC will become a platform that is more than just a vehicle for delivering multiple communications platforms to mobile devices and consumers, Johnson said.

Opera Software, which is also participating in the project, believes the standard "represents a big missing piece in the Web stack".

Lars Erik Bolstad, vice president for core technology at Opera, said: "WebRTC is an interesting functionality to the Web browser. Today, users can rely on their browser for most of the tasks they do on their computers [except for] videoconferencing, which still requires the use of native, proprietary software."

The new standard could help reduce the dependence on proprietary products, which is why the Norwegian browser maker is actively taking part in the standardization of WebRTC and intends to support its features in future products, Bolstad added.

Erik Lagerway, co-founder of Hookflash, a voice and video chat service provider, also pointed out in a Gigaom article in September that WebRTC could take a "great deal of heavy lifting" out of the equation for developers wanting to enable video or voice calling on Web browsers or mobile devices.

He also reiterated Johnson's point on how the new standard could be disruptive to the telecommunications industry.

Lagerway said: "Many traditional VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service providers will wither and die. Mobile operators who continue to behave the way they have been will experience a grand exodus as users flee to new innovative providers. Traditional landline sales and traditional mobile voice usage will slow to a halt, and the phone network you know today will be gone for good."

He added that Skype, which is the "standard" for videoconferencing on the Internet currently, will not dominate the mobile space because it it is a third-party application. Its service will unlikely be embedded by Apple and Google into their into their respective native operating systems--which currently dominate market share in the mobile space, so Skype will remain on the periphery.

When quizzed, Matthew Kaufman, principal architect at Skype, a division of Microsoft, said: "By improving browser capabilities, WebRTC lowers the barriers for people to rely on their browser for voice and video real-time communications." He did not comment on whether Skype's mobile business could be sidelined by the new standard though. 

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